Hang Tough

By: Lorelei James


Garnet Evans was mashing hulled strawberries in an industrial sieve when her phone rang. Thank heaven for caller ID; when she saw the number—and the time—she knew not to ignore it. She used her teeth to remove her right rubber glove and punched the talk button. “So who’s got a snootful tonight, Sherry?”

“Not who you’d expect, Garnet.” A pause. “Tobin.”

That snared Garnet’s attention real fast. “My Tobin? My word. That boy is always on the straight and narrow.”

Sherry snorted. “He’s hardly a boy.”

“Don’t I know it. What’s going on with him?”

“I’ve never seen him like this. He’s just so . . . sad. It’s breaking my heart.”

Garnet slumped against the wall and closed her eyes. For the past six months she’d had a heavy heart too, watching the changes in Tobin, and not liking them one bit.

“Now he’s here at the Buckeye trying to drown his sorrows.”

“Oh lordy, that’s not good.”

“Not good at all. And because I know you and Tobin are close, Garnet, I’m gonna break a confidence.” Sherry paused. “Normally you can’t pry this stuff out of me, but it’s important you know where his head is before you come and pick him up.”

“Hit me with it.”

“Tobin plans to give notice at the Split Rock Ranch and Resort tomorrow. He’s made up his mind. He’s ready to move on, out of Muddy Gap for sure, maybe even Wyoming altogether.”

“How far has he slipped down the bottle tonight?”

“He’s not stumbling or picking fights. He’s just melancholy and has had too much to drink to drive.”

“Get his keys.”

“Already got ’em.”

“Can you keep him parked on that barstool another thirty minutes? I’ve gotta call in reinforcements. Lord knows that boy will need to have his truck to go to work tomorrow so we can’t leave it at the bar.”

“No more than thirty minutes,” Sherry warned.

“Don’t you worry. I’ll be there with bells on before that thirty-minute mark.”

Sherry laughed. “Knowing you, Miz G, I’m taking the bells comment literally.”

Chapter One

One week later . . .

Tobin Hale’s cell phone rang for the hundredth time, tempting him to chuck it in the garbage disposal.

So far he’d ignored Tilda’s call, Bernice’s call, Vivien’s call, and Miz Maybelle’s call. When Pearl’s name flashed on the screen, he knew better than to ignore it.

“Hey, Pearl-es-cent, what’s the 411?”

“So your phone isn’t broken, you’re just screening our calls?” she demanded.

“Yes, ma’am. Shit has hit the fan over here and I ain’t in the mood to talk to nobody.”

“Well the same thing has happened over here at Garnet’s house.”

Tobin sipped his beer. “She’s mad that I gave Renner notice last week, isn’t she?” Now that he thought about it, it was sorta weird Garnet hadn’t called to give him what for.

“Of course she’s upset. But there’s loads more going on than that.” There was a shifting noise on the other end of the phone. “Her son is making good on his threat to lock her away where she can’t get into trouble,” Pearl whispered. “Don’t you remember?”

“Pearl, she was blubbering so damn hard I could barely understand anything she said.” Total chaos had erupted inside the lodge when all of the Mud Lilies ladies had shown up.

And he had had his own shit to deal with.

How fucking . . . coincidental that Hugh, the ranch foreman, had decided to lay it all out on the line for their boss, Renner Jackson—on the exact same day Tobin had given his notice. But Hugh had thought ahead and offered to buy the rodeo stock contracting business outright. Great for Hugh, it’d be great for Renner in the long run, but in the short term, that meant Tobin got stuck with doing all the day-to-day work. Again. He’d tried not to be bitter, but dammit. Nothing ever seemed to go his way.

Not true. You found out today you have a job interview in Albuquerque in three weeks.

Finally. Tobin felt as if he’d been in a holding pattern. No one knew that he’d updated his resume and started sending out job applications—two months ago. He considered it a sign he was on the right track the day after he’d given notice to Renner when he’d had an e-mail from one of the places he’d applied, requesting more information on his positions as “reproductive project manager at the Split Rock Ranch” and “genetic research development coordinator for Jackson Stock Contracting.” Yeah, maybe he’d stretched his job titles a tad, but it wasn’t like he didn’t have the education and the hands-on experience to it back up. And it had scored him an in-person interview.

“Tobin? Are you listening?” Pearl demanded.

Feeling guilty for tuning her out, he said, “Sorry. You lost me there for a moment. Could you please repeat that?”

“Her son finally has enough ‘just cause’—in his mind anyway—after the last couple of Garnet incidents to question her mental stability and her ability to take care of herself. He’s sending a moving van to pack up her house and he’s put a deposit down at one of those assisted living places”—she sniffled and wailed—“in Cheyenne!”